Review: “Babylon”

“White elephants—the God of Hollywood wanted white elephants, and white elephants he got—eight of ‘em, plaster mammoths perched on mega-mushroom pedestals, lording it over the colossal court of Belshazzar, the pasteboard Babylon built beside the dusty tin-lizzie trail called Sunset Boulevard.

…Belshazzar’s Feast beneath Egyptian blue skies, spread out under the blazing Southern California morning sun; more than four thousand extras recruited from L.A. paid an unheard-of two dollars a day plus box lunch plus carfare to impersonate Assyrian and Median militiamen, Babylonian dancers, Ethiopians, East Indians, Numidians, eunuchs, ladies-in-waiting to the Princess Beloved, handmaidens of the Babylonian temples, priests of Bel, Nergel, Marduk and Ishtar, slaves, nobles and subjects of Babylonia.

Griffith’s Vision of Babylon!

A mare’s nest mountain of scaffolding, hanging gardens, chariot-race ramparts and sky-high elephants, a make-believe mirage of Mesopotamia dropped down on the sleepy huddle of mission-style bungalows amid the orange groves that made up 1915 Hollywood, portent of things to come.

The Purple Epoch had begun.

And there it stood for years, stranded like some gargantuan dream besides Sunset Boulevard. Long after Griffith’s great leap into the unknown, his Sun Play of the Ages, Intolerance, had failed; long after Belshazzar’s court had sprouted weed and its walls had begun to peel and warp in abandoned movie-set disarray; after the Los Angeles fire department had condemned it as a fire hazard, still it stood: Griffith’s Babylon, something of a reproach and something of a challenge to the burgeoning movie town—something to surpass, something to live down.

The shadow of Babylon had fallen over Hollywood, a serpent spell in code cuneiform; scandal was waiting, just out of Billy Bitzer’s camera range.”

-Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon

The above segment of the opening chapter of avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon paints a tantalizing picture. For his epic, three-and-a-half hour 1916 drama “Intolerance,” which was divided into four segments across different time periods, director D.W. Griffith had an enormous, towering set replicating ancient Babylon constructed alongside Sunset Boulevard. The film—a response, of sorts, to Griffith’s controversial but just as influential 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation”—represents one of the artistic high points of Hollywood’s silent film era, its lavish costumes, detail production design, and seemingly countless extras nearly defying reality, effectively conjuring the sort of portal to another world that we come to the movies for. The idea that one of Hollywood’s most staggering creations was, as Anger described, left to crumble on the side of the road as the years passed by, serves as a compact symbol of Tinsel Town’s highest highs and lowest lows, a romantic image of how the movie business is perpetually in motion, the people and things placed on a pedestal one day left abandoned on the side of the road the next. It’s almost too enticing to be true—and was it true? There’s no evidence outside of Anger’s book that the Babylon set constructed for “Intolerance” was left to stand for years after filming wrapped, and there’s little reason to believe it would be; few in those early days of the movies believed that the films they made, let alone the sets and costumes they used to make them, were little more than disposable entertainment, and that people a century from then would still be watching them and studying them.

The Babylon set in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 silent epic “Intolerance”

The truth is, Hollywood Babylon holds an interesting and controversial place in entertainment history. Initially published in 1959 and reissued in 1975, Anger’s book is largely tabloid gossip with a few facts sprinkled in here and there. Film historian Kevin Brownlow, whose interest is specifically in silent film and whose books on the subject include 1968’s The Parade’s Gone By.… and 1979’s Hollywood, The Pioneers, has criticized Hollywood Babylon as being “mental telepathy, mostly,” while it is commonly accepted nowadays that the bulk of the book is a work of fiction. But at the time, Anger’s book, which examined Hollywood from the early 1900s through the 1950s, was one of the first and few instances of Hollywood looking back on itself, and is responsible for perpetuated many long-held rumors and misconceptions about the business and its stars, many of which were rooted in racism, sexism, and a salacious desire to revel in already tragic circumstances and exploit them even further. Take, for instance, Anger’s assertion that a “black lead Art Deco dildo” gifted to Mexican-American silent film star Ramon Novarro (shades of whose attempts at assimilation can be seen in the Mexican lead of the movie I’m here to discuss), supposedly gifted to him by fellow star Rudolph Valentino, was crammed down his throat when he was violently murdered in his own home in 1968 for being a homosexual (there’s no evidence that that occurred). Or, in one of his most egregious but long-debunked stories, that Mexican actress Lupe Velez, famous for her marriage to “Tarzan” actor Johnny Weissmuller and her starring role in RKO’s “Mexican Spitfire” comedy series and who committed suicide in 1944 by swallowing a lethal amount of seconal, was discovered with her head in a toilet, her meticulously-planned and pretty deathbed ruined by her vomiting up the “Mexi-Spice Last Supper” she had consumed the evening before.

But for all its falsehoods, a lot of Hollywood Babylon is at the very least inspired by fact. A similar, albeit far less wretched, approach to dissecting early Hollywood history can be found in writer and director Damien Chazelle’s film “Babylon,” which lifts its title directly from Anger’s book (and conjures images of the ancient city of the same name, a cultural hub reduced to ruin). Within the film’s sprawling three hour and eight minute runtime, we witness a version of Hollywood that isn’t 100% true to life, from the contemporary/skimpy costumes and hair of aspiring starlet Nellie La Roy (Margot Robbie) to the wildly violent wrench thrown in the film’s final hour by an encounter with mob boss James McKay (Tobey Maguire, delivering a gonzo performance in a role that feels tailor-made for him) to the elephant that parades through film’s delirious opening party sequence. But Chazelle’s film is also never not rooted in fact, and he wisely draws from elements of various old Hollywood stars—some who remain icons today, others who have faded into obscurity for all but the most devoted fans of the era—and the very real conflicts that arose as the film industry underwent its most rapid and radical change during its transition from silence to sound to compose his characters and compile a film crafted on the same epic scale as a film like “Intolerance,” putting archetypes of the industry’s most marginalized figures center stage.

Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad in “Babylon”

The bulk of “Babylon” spans the late-1920s through about 1932. The many central figures of the story collide in the film’s bawdy aforementioned opening party sequence, an encapsulation of the era’s hedonism crammed with nudity, sex, profanity, liters of alcohol, and mounds of drugs in every corner of the frame. The party is set in the grand estate of studio executive Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin). His guests include popular matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who enters the home alone after fighting with his wife (one of several we see throughout the movie) in the car outside, influential entertainment journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), an entertainer whose Asian descent is exoticized for the pleasure of the white guests watching her. Those working the party include Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a Black trumpet player whose band plays for the party (and Justin Hurwitz’s layered jazz score—his best to date and the best in any movie this year—further embellishes the party and the entire film’s chaotic highs and lows) and Manuel Torres (Diego Calva in a star-making turn), an assistant responsible for wrangling the party’s entertainment but who dreams of working on a real movie set. And then there’s Nellie La Roy, the wild, fame-chasing party girl who sweet-talks her way into the party and, thanks to a series of unfortunate events, ends up with a role on a movie to start the next day. For some of these players, the conclusion of the glamorous party isn’t unlike Cinderella’s carriage turning into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, as they exit the mansion and retreat to cramped and crummy apartments; Lady Fay Zhu, we see, lives about a laundry and writes intertitles for films, her race and sex the barrier to her receiving more credit for her work. But others, like Nellie and Manuel (who Nellie befriends and quickly nicknames “Manny”), were just at the right place at the right time, and their Hollywood journey is just beginning.

Throughout “Babylon,” Chazelle demonstrates a firm grasp on the manners of the era, and on the technical aspects of filmmaking. The unabashed eroticism of the movie’s opening stands in stark contrast to a mannered party scene that occurs much later, and Nellie, once celebrated for her wild ways, is forced to tame them; despite the fact that the Production Code wasn’t really enforced until the middle of 1934, leading to an avalanche of racy movies in the early-1930s like the lusty adventure film “Red Dust” or the star-studded Oscar-winning drama “Grand Hotel” (the posters for which can be glimpsed in a studio office late in the film), public outcry led to an attempt after the movies transitioned to sound to clean up their act. And the marked difference in the actual technique of making movies can be witnessed in two contrasting scenes. Directly following the party at Don Wallach’s, the characters go to work, and we follow them to the expansive outdoor set of the Kinoscope studio (fictional, but perhaps mostly based on Paramount, as its their iconic studio gates we later see with Kinoscope’s name on them). Several films of various scales are being shot simultaneously, and there’s nothing glamorous in the chaotic clamor of bodies, the vein-popping screams of frazzled directors, and the occasionally real carnage as weapons clash and bodies collide. But there’s something inspiring in the free-wheeling nature of it all, the freedom that actors and filmmakers had to try things on the fly and see what sticks. Later in the film, following the roaring success of the first talking picture “The Jazz Singer” (Manny attends a showing in New York and phones Jack back in LA, telling him that “everything is about to change”), we watch Nellie film her first talking scene. Whereas the back-and-forth we saw between her and her director in the previous sequence showcased the freedom they had to experiment, here, the restrictions enforced on them by the clunky early sound equipment is suffocating (literally—because it makes too much noise for the microphones, the air-conditioning inside the soundstage has to be turned off). It’s a scene of mounting hilarity as numerous mishaps—Nellie missing her mark or delivering her lines too loudly or quietly, crew unaccustomed to the need for silence on set brazenly entering the soundstage—lead to increasing tensions on set, but there’s an undercurrent of mourning running beneath it. Of course, as the technology improved and those working in the industry became accustomed to it, actors had the freedom to move and improvise, and directors could adjust the scene as needed without having to account for the static microphones. But at this exact moment, that loss of creative freedom is deeply felt.

Chazelle’s knowledge of Hollywood at this juncture and the manner in which he incorporates even the smallest fleeting details into “Babylon” fleshes out his film that much more. There’s an allusion to the prevalence of sound resulting in the need to translate movies into other languages besides English; in the early 1930s, studios sometimes filmed entire movies concurrently in a different language with a different cast and director (the most well-known example of this that still survives today is Universal’s 1931 Spanish-language version of “Dracula”). Race films play an integral role in the arc of Sidney Palmer, whose career doesn’t flag with the arrival of sound; he goes from playing music for silents to playing for musicals to headlining short movies that spotlight musicians (Chazelle has specifically cited 1929’s “St. Louis Blues” and “Black & Tan,” the latter of which starred bandleader Duke Ellington, as inspirations). But there were still few opportunities for Black performers in Hollywood at the time; while a few Black-owned studios, such as the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, existed, they operated on the fringes of the Hollywood mainstream, while those helmed by white producers, like the Ebony Film Corporation, relied heavily on racist stereotypes in their movies, despite them starring Black performers and being marketed toward Black audiences. “Babylon” also demonstrates a firm grasp on the role women played in early Hollywood. Women were present not just in front of the camera but behind it during the silent era, working as directors, editors, writers, and more. Filmmakers like Lois Weber pioneered different filmmaking techniques, before the studio system became a boy’s club with the advent of sound (at which point Dorothy Arzner was the only female director in Hollywood for quite a stretch). During that expansive outdoor Kinoscope setpiece, many women can be seen around the sets, and Nellie’s director on her first few films is a tough-talking named Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton).

Margot Robbie as Nellie La Roy in “Babylon”

Some of Chazelle’s are obvious. The scene at the party in which Lady Fay, costumed in a tuxedo, croons a racy song and plants a kiss on the lips of a woman in the audience, is directly lifted from the 1930 movie “Morocco,” which sees star Marlene Dietrich perform the same act in a scene that was controversial at the time, but a landmark in the portrayal gender fluidity and bisexuality onscreen. Later in the film, a scene is set around the filming of the “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence for the bizarre 1929 musical “The Hollywood Revue,” MGM’s effort to capitalize on the new sound technology by corralling all their stars into various disparate musical numbers. But he is more often than not drawing on pieces of real-life people and events. Jack Conrad’s primary inspiration is John Gilbert, the dashing silent screen star who frequently appeared opposite Greta Garbo in romantic epic such as “Love” and “Flesh and the Devil,” but whose career fizzled with the advent of sound. As with Gilbert, there’s no concrete reason for Conrad’s star fading; his voice was fine, the movies he appeared in by and large weren’t flops. The reason can perhaps be best boiled down to the fact that was just too of his time, and audiences couldn’t adjust to the change. Nellie’s fraught family backstory and screen persona is mainly drawn from Clara Bow, a symbol of the Roaring 20s nicknamed “the It girl” (Nellie is similarly christened “the wild child”). Like Nellie, she faded largely into obscurity after the silent era ended; we watch Nellie struggle to adjust to talking properly with her thick Jersey accent, and that “wild child” persona that rocketed her to stardom similarly serves as her downfall when Hollywood starts looking for more sanitized stars to back. Manny, meanwhile, slowly climbs the ranks and starts taking on the role of a studio “fixer” not unlike that of MGM’s Eddie Mannix. Some of these characters bow to everything the industry asks of them, their attempts at assimilation slowly chipping away at their identities until there’s nothing left. Jack takes on crummy roles in crummy films in an effort to maintain his grasp on his career (we see him reluctantly participate in that “Singin’ in the Rain” number; Gilbert really was in “The Hollywood Revue,” but in a “Romeo and Juliet” scene, not a music number). Manny insists on being called by his Americanized nickname, not “Manuel,” adjusting his ethnicity from Mexican to Spanish as he sees fit to help him assimilate. Lady Fay leaves Hollywood for better opportunities in Europe, not unlike one of her character’s inspirations, Asian-American actress Anna May Wong, who briefly left Hollywood for the U.K., where she had one of her most compelling roles in the 1929 silent drama “Piccadilly.” When Nellie’s attempt to change her persona fails, she’s ostracized, and when Sidney is asked to compromise his integrity for the sake of a film, he walks. Chazelle’s script and every actor’s performance is perfectly calibrated to give each character, regardless of their screen time, a fully-realized arc that comments on the nature of Hollywood’s star machine.

Much of “Babylon” borders on grotesque. There’s defecation and vomiting, urination and gore. It’s not always for the faint of heart, and its varied tones and occasionally uneven pacing makes it a sometimes uneasy sit. But I also can’t remember the last time I saw a movie about Hollywood that so deftly conveys its melancholy and its joy, all while mourning the loss of a very specific art form—in this case, silent film (I’m particularly taken with a segment in this interview Chazelle did with critic Marya E. Gates for rogerebert.com, in which he describes silent film as an art form cut off at its peak). It chews people up and spits them out; sometimes they survive, sometimes they are reduced to mere footnotes in its history. But as Elinor St. John tells Jack, the images they created will live on for decades, long after they themselves are gone. And the brilliantly bonkers montage that Chazelle concludes “Babylon” with conveys all the hope for the future with the tragedy of and respect for the past in one neat package. For all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making a movie, as we see throughout “Babylon,” there is one perfect moment where it all comes together just right that makes it all worthwhile. Chazelle may take a cue from Hollywood Babylon in merging Hollywood fact with Hollywood fiction, but the wildly ambitious scope of his film—barely released in theaters and already polarizing—is exactly what I go to the movies to see.

“Babylon” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 189 minutes. Rated R.

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